An attempt to promote an old-fashioned idea: that being a journalist is a good thing

Sandra Dickson has lost her faith in journalism.

Dickson isn't one of those multi-award-winning journalists whose byline you would recognise but a very recent Whitireia Polytechnic graduate who is abandoning the field after an unhappy internship at the Dominion Post.

I hadn't noticed Dickson's writing before. And yet, the idealistic former journalist in me—who I'm astounded to discover still believes that being a reporter is something to aspire to—wants to launch a "Mr Lisa Goes to Hollywood" response.

Remember that Simpsons moment where Lisa, in Washington to deliver a patriotic essay, stumbles upon political corruption and announces she has lost her faith in democracy?

A Senate page rushes immediately to the phone to call his senator to declare: "A little girl has lost faith in democracy!" The Senate swings into action, and that little girl's faith is restored.

Here goes...

Setting aside Dickson's beef about the DomPost's story choice (I agree with the paper—Parihaka is a great festival, but not "news" in itself), she recounts tales from the DomPost newsroom: a journalist hassling a high-profile friend for an interview about her private life, and a reporter interviewing an apparently vulnerable child, both of which are definitely things that can happen in newsrooms.

But some great things happen there, too. And in my limited experience, the good stuff outweighs the bad.

Despite their preciousness, cynical exteriors, black humour, and over-sized egos, journalists are a fairly thoughtful lot.

Every newsroom is different, but where I have worked, reporters talk among themselves about the grey zones. Most news organisations have fairly sensible policies, but reporters, too, talk about where to draw the line on things like calling up kids, using out-of-context information from someone's social networking page, or doing a 'death-knock'—and they and their bosses usually end up making decisions that I think Dickson would agree with.

(I even discovered while at TVNZ that a bunch of people actually work there because they believe in public broadcasting. Others of us took the job to see our mugs on the telly).

Kiwi journalists produce some fantastic work. Most of it isn't recognised or rewarded outside of after-work drinks. The rise of blogs has made everyone an armchair critic, but hardly anybody a cheerleader for quality journalism. (Blogs are not about to replace old-fashioned journalism, and we should be incredibly grateful for that. The majority of blogs take their content from more traditional news organisations while those that don't tend to be so partisan that the real news can get lost.)

Dickson, by all accounts, might have made a good journalist. She is a snappy writer and a dogged researcher.

Her self-proclaimed last act of journalism—a piece that in my view overstates the importance of blogs in the last election—is paradoxically outmatched in terms of independent journalism by some of her blog entries. "Police find non-existent survey report!!!!" would be a great story, if only it had fewer exclamation points and a more balanced tone.

So I am disappointed that Dickson gave up on mainstream media. It appears from her recounting of her DomPost internship that she didn't take the humble, mouth-shut, eager-to-learn approach that has eased many an intern into any workplace.

She might have made a feisty journalist. And a great contribution to those ongoing discussions in the newsroom about where to draw the line.

Comments (14)

by Paul McBeth on April 30, 2009
Paul McBeth

Thank you for the defence of what I think is still a fine profession, David.

And thanks for giving a damn about what the industry has lost.

As a contemporary of Sandra's (I graduated with her and was the other intern at the Dom) I was disappointed with her decision.

She's a sharp, well-read, and engaging person who's willing to listen to and accept dissenting views and I think she would have made a great reporter (although what she's decided to do seems very very cool). 

I haven't lost my illusions with the career I've chosen to pursue (I had most of them punctured what seems like a couple of liftetimes ago), and I'm glad there are people out there like you who still care.

So, once again, my thanks - you didn't need to persuade me, but I think I'm more comfortable with my decision having read your defence.

PB.

by George Darroch on May 01, 2009
George Darroch

I have immense respect for journalists.

I just think that the major media outlets have demonstrated that they have no desire to hire new ones, and a couple of very good journalists I know have been fired in recent months.

I came back to NZ to visit this summer, and caught an AirNZ flight. They handed me the Sunday Star Times, and I wanted to get back off the plane. The difference in quality of journalism between the Dominion Post and the Canberra Times (which I use here rather than the SMH or The Age, as it has a comparable circulation) is a gaping hole.

I honestly think that the "death of journalism" that is being bemoaned internationally at the moment  already reached NZ years ago, and it's having dire effects on the public discourse.

by Graeme Edgeler on May 01, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

I do like journalists, and journalism, but every time you know a little bit about a topic covered in the media, the more you realise they get so so many things wrong. Lots of the inaccuracies are in the detail, sure, but not all of them, and you wonder about the other things - things you don't have personal knowledge of - and how much of that is inaccruate..

After the government released its Sentencing and Parole Reform bill, I analysed it, comparing it with its antecedecents (the Sensible Sentencing Trust's and ACT's draft three strike bill) and looked at what it did.

There were more than a dozen news article about it over the following weeks - major stories in major newspapers - and not one of them got the effects of the bill correct. A couple of errors straight after its release, sure, but weeks later the same errors were being repeated. And they're still doing it.

by Tim Watkin on May 03, 2009
Tim Watkin

I think Graeme's comment illustrate one of the difficulties journalists have... You may have found some consistent errors of fact in stories on the bill, but perhaps some of what you see as errors were simply different emphasis or takes on the story?

Whether it's true in this case or not, I often find that criticism about stories being 'wrong' is more typically a criticism of the way the story is reported. Everyone will think that one part of a story is more important than another, or that a stories misses a point that's really important to them, or seems to stress one angle over another they'd prefer to have covered. None of that makes a story 'wrong', however.

The other problem journalists face is that they are usually only as good as their sources. Yes, journalists could and should seek analysis from more than the usual talking heads. A lack of research and range of voices are real problems here. Many journalists don't go deep enough into a story and don't fact check as thoroughly as they should. They just whack quote marks around an assertion and push print, rather than find the black and white fact of the matter. But often the sources aren't as well versed as they should be and, again, just because a source pushes the story in a direction this or that reader doesn't like, that doesn't make it wrong.

There's also the simple but often over-looked point that journalists work in a shop window. I'm sure most of you non-journos out there make wee mistakes at work every day. Guess what? So do journalists. Only your mistakes aren't critiqued by thousands of others and used to damn an entire industry.

I don't say that to elicit sympathy. We choose the jobs we choose and we're expected to get it right. My point is that amongst the millions of words printed and broadcast, we usually do.

I do worry about the average age in newsrooms these days, as George suggests. Experience and expertise matter. Hence the contributors to Pundit have all been around the block a few times.

And I worry that many young journalists - not all, welcome on board Paul - are motivated by the desire for (C list) celebrity, rather than curiousity, a low bullshit threshold and a passion for facts. David, I should add, is probably the sharpest young journalist I've dealt with in recent years, hence his place on this site. Few have his smarts and work ethic, however.

Still, let me echo David by saying that journalists do argue about the issues we're most often criticised for. Just because some come to a conclusion you (or I) might disagree with, don't assume the debate hasn't been had.

 

by Graeme Edgeler on May 03, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

I think Graeme's comment illustrate one of the difficulties journalists have... You may have found some consistent errors of fact in stories on the bill, but perhaps some of what you see as errors were simply different emphasis or takes on the story?

Having a small amount of time as a student journalist, and an on-line column of my own, I like to think to I know the difference.

So, for example, this NZPA piece (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10567895) whilst wrong, is not the fault of the journalist, but of Kim Workman (NZ's proposed 3 strikes law doesn't include the standard domestic violence offence, so any research into the effects of US laws on family violence reporting is irrelevant).

But this one (http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/2352856/Desperate-criminals-may-kill) is the fault of the newspaper:

"[the 3 strikes law] would see those convicted of a third serious offence sentenced to life imprisonment with a 25-year non-parole period."

People could be convicted of many many serious offences and still not receive the life sentence. And not just sometimes, this would be the case for most people convicted of three serious offences.

And this blog from Colin Espiner (http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/blogs/on-the-house/2280230/Crime-laws-pu...) is all his own fault:

Just how dumb is Three Strikes? This dumb: on your third conviction for armed robbery you go to jail for 25 years. Without parole. The same applies to murder, attempted murder, grievous bodily harm, rape and a range of sexual offences on children and young people.

But wait. There's more. National is proposing to add to the list of things that can result in you being sent to jail for a third of your life: incest, throwing acid, and - I am not making this up - bestiality.

Yup, shag a sheep three times and you go to jail for 25 years. That's just insane.

This one is categorically false. Not just, "missed a very important caveat that rendered the article so misleading as to be indistinguishable from false", but a complete falsehood.

Bestiality just isn't there. It hasn't been in any of the draft bills, it's never been proposed; it's just not defined as a strike offence. No matter how many sheep you shag, you will never get a life sentence for it. Never.

p.s. what happened to the ability to include an in-line link? It looked a lot better than all these urls.

by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2009
Tim Watkin

I haven't looked at the latest changes to see whether these changes were later stopped, Graeme, but in defence of Colin, he was posting the day after this story appeared in the media: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10562445

So he was responding to what was being said by the man who is sponsoring the bill and seems to have been accurate on the day he wrote it, at least.

The Stuff piece, well yes... if only the journo had said 'could' instead of 'would'! And the PA piece is an example of two points I was making. First, Mr Workman's usually a reliable source and a respected expert. The journalist can't be expected to know more than a specialist, so sometimes even the best sources let you down. Second, journalists don't take the time to factcheck. A look at the bill or a second phone call would have done the trick. But a) journos in NZ aren't trained to factcheck their own stories; b) subs who might have once caught errors are now usually sub-contracters working in another office; and c) newsrooms are so under-staffed, the journo who wrote that piece was probably pushed for time, perhaps having a second or third story to 'bang out' that day.

by Graeme Edgeler on May 05, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

The NZPA piece - absolutely - that's why I used it as an example. Sometimes 'mistakes' are made that are not the fault of journalists ... that's not the kind of mistake I think we can expect journalists not to make.

I can see why your arguments might explain inaccuracies, but I think your arguments turn against you (or at least againt David). The post was about why we should 'trust the media'. Your arguments that:

a) journos in NZ aren't trained to factcheck their own stories;

b) subs who might have once caught errors are now usually sub-contracters working in another office; and

c) newsrooms are so under-staffed, the journo who wrote that piece was probably pushed for time, perhaps having a second or third story to 'bang out' that day.

are all reasons why we shouldn't trust the media.

And back to three strikes (i'm not really asking you to defend it, or the reporting) on this specific point "he was responding to what was being said by the man who is sponsoring the bill and seems to have been accurate on the day he wrote it, at least.":

1. David Garrett isn't sponsoring the bill.

2. The Herald article was wrong - "compelling indecent act with animal" is not bestiality. Bestiality is having sex with an animal, compelling an indecency with an animal is when you force someone else to - it is a major difference.

by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2009
Tim Watkin

You've caught me Graeme. I knew it was a government bill as part of the coalition deal, so my apologies for saying Garrett is the sponsor. But my point was that the man behind it - to use less precise, but more accurate language - was talking about bestiality, so it's not unreasonable for Colin E to assume he knows what he's talking about. Garrett should presumably know the issues around the bill better than anyone. Your point catches him out, however.

And yes, the resource-driven falling standards in most newsrooms is reason to be concerned. But I still argue, like David, that most of the journalists who remain are more thoughtful, more careful and more cognisent of the "grey zones" than they're often given credit for. 

by Graeme Edgeler on May 05, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

Garrett should presumably know the issues around the bill better than anyone.

That's a presumption history suggests no-one should be making :-)

by Tim Watkin on May 06, 2009
Tim Watkin

And hey Graeme, thanks for pointing out the missing links. Not sure where they went, but they're back now, so no more ugly long URLs.

by jason brown on May 27, 2009
jason brown

So Graeme, if I understand you correctly, blab la bla bla bla blab...

How about applying some of that meticulous analysis to causes, not symptoms?

Why not examine what is in the stomach of journalism, rather than obsessing over ever-present professional lint in the belly button? Like, how many journalists did we have a quarter century ago, before economic "restructuring" *cough*corruption* stripped journalism to a depression era diet two decades before the current recession?

How about comparing that to how many journalists we have now? On a per capita basis? Do you know? Does anyone? A good place to start? How about the union review of New Zealand journalism?

Woops, that's right, EPMU haven't done it yet. Apparently, in December 2007, the review was to be ready for "next year's" conference. Even if it was finished then, nine months ago, it was a bit hard to present, since there was no conference. So far, no response to questions about what happened to either.

What I think the others are gently trying to alert you to here, Graeme, is the fact that the problem is not left-wing media bias, or even a vast right-wing conspiracy, but that bottom-line resources are not sufficient to get the job done as well as you quite rightly insist.

And that that is having very real consequences for us as a functioning democracy.

Here's one more link in the new, improved snappy link-thingy.

by Peter Sim on June 04, 2009
Peter Sim

I do not know where aspiring journalists can go to pursue their craft.

Media outlets used to try to balance news stories with advertisements.  (That gives away my age)

Nowadays any old rubbish is used to pad out the advertisements.

Who needs journalists?  PR and news syndicates will fill the gap.

Who needs editors, now we have managers.

Who needs sub editors now we have spell check.

Who needs hard nosed research, now we have the net?

Once upon a time truth used to matter to "4th estate" now it merely gets in the way of a "good" headline.

Sigh.

Journalism is defunct.

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